Alcoholics Anonymous History
Twelve Steps to
By Dick B.
Twelve Steps to Power
[One of Sam
Shoemaker’s many articles on A.A. – a copy of which is at Griffith
Library, Vermont.Dick B., January, 2007]
Sam Shoemaker, in one of his most helpful
articles, first published nearly twenty years ago, shows how "the
program" so effective for alcoholics can work for all of us.
of the most remarkable phenomena of our time is the growth of the
movement called Alcoholics Anonymous. My interest in it is personal as
well as objective, for the men who set it in motion first found the
spiritual experience which changed their lives in my own church, though
the first actual group of Alcoholics Anonymous was formed in Akron,
You must go yourself to an "open" meeting, and listen to what recovered
men and women say of what they used to be, what happened to them when
they came into touch with AA, and what life is like now that they look
to the Higher Power, which AA calls God so as to include all in their
program. Somewhere about 120,000 men and women* are now in their ranks,
sober, industrious, God-fearing, happy, useful citizens.
The AA program has twelve clearly defined steps. These have been built
up out of experience. They work. Shrewd observation and insight have
gone into their making. They contain eternal truths -- truths that are
valuable and necessary for the rest of us, whether or not we are actual
or potential alcoholics. Let me list each step, then comment on what
seems its universal significance.
(1) "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives
had become unmanageable."
As you read those words, you may be thinking, "I never touch alcohol,"
or "I can handle it all right." But does it take a great step of
imagination to see that first step as applying to a very much wider
range of problems than alcohol? What about the people with an ungoverned
temper, who make a hell out of their home, or their office, because they
have never learned to manage their own dispositions? What about the men
and women whose passions drive them to wrong expressions of human love,
and who are as much slaves to sex as anyone was ever a slave to drink?
What about those in whose lives fear reigns like a tyrant -- fear of
people, fear of the future, fear of want, fear of death, fear of
failure, fear so deep-seated and widespread within them that it seems to
pervade everything? Are not their lives also "powerless" and
"unmanageable," just as much so as if they got drunk? Are they not drunk
Or think of the people in whose lives hate and resentment are found. I
heard the other day of a family where a mother and son have ganged up on
a daughter and her husband, and no offers of reconciliation on their
part meet with anything but rebuff. Are not their lives quite as
unmanageable, really, as any drunkard's? Do they not drink in great,
self-destroying draughts of hate and bitterness quite as real, quite as
devastating to one's self and others, as alcohol ever was? Make the
I remember the first time I ever went into a rescue mission. God forgive
me, my first thought was to be glad I was not like those men. But it was
not long till I came to know that Christ was much harder on the sins of
righteous and respectable people than He was on harlots and prodigals.
Your life and mine can be quite as unmanageable as an alcoholic's may be
(2) "We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could
restore us to sanity."
AA often calls God or Christ a "Power greater than ourselves" because
many people have formed unhappy associations with organized religions,
and they do not want to stir up needless antagonisms. They want to draw
needy men and women within the range of cure and recovery. Perhaps we
all ought to be drawn to God by the fact that He is God, by the beauty
of His perfection and the power of His love. But the simple fact is,
most of us do not seek God till we need Him.
We find out through bitter experience that life does not come out when
you ignore Him. You find you get into difficulties you cannot solve by
yourself. So you begin seeking for God.
How do we come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can
restore us to sanity? By looking at some people who have had the
experience. Faith is better caught by contagion than taught by
instruction. It is an amazing thing to come into a company of Alcoholics
Anonymous and hear testimony to the difference that has been wrought in
their lives. It should be an amazing thing to come into a company of
Christians in church, and at times it is. Beside its worship services,
every church should also have informal gatherings where people seeking
faith can hear personal witness from believers, and where they can ask
questions and have them answered.
(3) "We made a decision to turn our wills and our lives over to
the care of God, as we understood Him."
Do you know what most people do who think they believe in God? They
stand right where they are and ask God to bless what they are doing.
They do not turn their wills and lives over to God, tell Him they are
willing to change and be different and ask Him what He wants them to do.
That is why many professing Christians are not converted and why they
have no power. It is also why AA is such a challenge to the rest of us.
The great philosopher and psychologist William James said, "The crisis,
of self-surrender has always been and must always be regarded the vital
turning-point of the religious life." Self-surrender is man's part in
his own conversion. We cannot and do not convert ourselves; we offer
ourselves to God in surrender, and He does the converting by His Holy
Spirit, bringing us forgiveness and new life.
How many persons have I seen make that decision, take that step, and as
a result find God and His power in their lives! Have you ever done that?
Will you do it now?
(4) "We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of
ourselves." How does one do that?
If we compare ourselves with other people. we shall probably come off
advantageously. But if we take the Ten Commandments, or Jesus'
commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, we shall see the vast
difference between what they enjoin and what we are and do. Let us look
fearlessly at that very difference; for that difference is the measure
of the sin in us which needs to be repented of by us and forgiven by
Many of us stand aghast at the mounting corruption in this land, the
dishonesty, graft, chiseling, using high place for personal advantage,
the increase in narcotics and crime among young people. I wonder in how
many instances these people have ever heard the claims of Christ placed
squarely and tellingly before them? How many of them have ever heard
anyone witness about what Christ has done for him? How many have ever
faced themselves morally, and found out exactly what their needs are?
The place to begin spiritually is not with our virtues. That makes us
prigs and Pharisees. It is with our sins and needs, for that gives us an
honest basis on which to proceed.
(5) "We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to one other human
being the exact nature of our wrongs."
We can easily understand confessing to God, but why include another
human being? Why include him? I think it is because the deepest need of
our hearts is our pride, especially the pride of thinking we can manage
our own lives without human help. When you go a priest, a counselor, or
just an understanding Christian friend, and open up to him the exact
nature of your wrongdoings, you then know you are sincere in wanting to
Some kind of confession is good and necessary for us all. If we took
such action in time, many of us would avoid the necessity to seek
psychiatric help later on. It is a cleansing, releasing experience to
talk out one's whole situation with another human being, omitting
nothing of the facts. Something left untold can stay in the mind to
break out later in defeat. Let us be fearlessly honest in our inventory
and in our admissions to another human being.
(6) "We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects
Most of us justify our wrongdoings and excuse them. Even when we admit
them, we do not quite want to give them up. Would that we could come to
the point of desperation which alcoholics reach, where they are ready to
do anything to get victory!
Sin hides behind immaturity. We keep up a fence of protection, then when
we are found out we whimper like babies. But when we take down the fence
of protection, and let another know us well, we are through with shams
and seIf-deception and the attempt to deceive others, and even God.
It will take some prayer to get to this place, where we want God to take
the sin out of us, all of it, and for good. We will wrestle with
ourselves a good deal, before it happens. It will not happen in a day,
but the decision that we want it to happen can take place in five
(7) "We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings."
There is, I dare say, no moment of comparable importance in the soul's
history to this, when in humility and honesty we tell God in prayer that
we want Him to take us over, remove our sins, and change our lives. Lots
of life-long Christians have avoided the challenge of doing this because
they wanted to play safe. There is prayer that means little; we say the
words, but do not back them up by our real intentions. Then there is
prayer in which we hurl our lives after our prayers, and mean what we
When you have isolated that pride, that fear, that contemptuousness,
that resentment, that lust, called it by name, and asked God to remove
it from your life, meaning what you say with all the resolve you can
command, then you mean business and you are on the way.
(8) "We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became
willing to make amends to them all."
Jesus once said, "If a man love not his brother whom he hath seen, how
can he love God whom he hath not seen?" We certainly never can get into
right relations with God while we are in the wrong relations with
In a human tangle and conflict, there are usually two sides. Some people
see only their side. Some are ready to admit wrong in themselves as well
as in their opponent. But the world is full of people waiting for
somebody else to come and make an apology to them. They say they will
not make up until they do. But what about making apology yourself first?
How about telling the other person, not where he is wrong, but where you
have been wrong?
When I first tried to face the issues of Christian conversion in my own
life, there was someone right in my family against whom I held a deep
resentment. When I began to face God honestly, I knew I had to get right
with this other person. The whole relationship stood up before me and I
could not avoid it. But, I said to God, "He is nine-tenths responsible
for the situation." And do you know what I think God said back to me? He
said, "What are you going to do about the one-tenth for which you are
Deeply imbedded in my first total Christian decision was the necessity
to make amends to someone who had done some things toward me that were
wrong, but to whom I needed to confess my own bitterness and lack of
love. Is it so with you?
(9) "We made direct amends to such people wherever possible,
except when to do so would injure them or others."
One of the first things I had to do after my initial surrender was to
write a letter of restitution. There was a kind of warm glow about
getting ready to do that; but when I came to the doing of it, it was
just plain hard work. Yet it had to be done.
We have no right in squaring ourselves with another to confess the sins
of a third party or bring him into it. In rare cases, to confess in all
honesty will hurt the person to whom we confess, and we should not do
it. But this must not be taken as an excuse for not doing it when we
know perfectly well he deserves to know, and we cannot right the
relationship until we tell him.
Pray about it. Pray for the right time and the right spirit. Pray for
him to receive it in the right spirit, so that it provides an occasion
for spiritual advance for you both. Be honest with the family, or with
the company about padding the expense account. Apologize to that person
with whom you lost your temper. Sometimes people are dead before we see
the need to make restitution to them. Put it in God's hands. Ask Him if
possible to make known to them our sorrow, and leave the matter there.
(10) "We continued to take personal inventory and when we were
wrong promptly admitted it."
Even the greatest of all Christian conversions is just a beginning; it
must be continued and renewed all the time. The grit of sin gets into
our machinery and stops it. Sometimes we even get all the way back into
the old ways of self-will and various kinds of sin. So the inventory
must go on. Sometimes clear victory comes that is relatively permanent.
Sometimes we are fighting thirty years afterward the same old sins as we
fought in the beginning.
Daily confession to God, periodical confession to others, for our own
clearing or to keep the record straight, are needed and will always be
needed. Alcoholics always say, "I am an alcoholic," not "I was an
alcoholic." Christians must learn to believe and to say, "I am a sinner"
-- not "I was a sinner," but "I am a sinner."
If we really feel that, we will avoid the pride of grace which makes
some people think that because they have been Christians a long time
they do not sin. And we will much more easily admit our wrongs to others
when they arise.
(11) "We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our
conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for
knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out."
Religion is relationship with God, and we must give something to it if
we would deepen and enrich a relationship. Prayer, Bible study, and
participation in Christian worship are the three classical ways of
keeping in touch with God. It is astonishing when you think of it, that
we finite, sinful human beings can come into contact with Almighty God.
But we can through the introduction Jesus Christ has given us to Him.
Time was when prayer was unreal to me, and the Bible dull; but then came
the experience of finding Christ with power, and both things began to be
real. When I got them into focus, as means by which one could grow in a
life that by then I really wanted to live, they came alive.
We must set apart time each day for this, first thing in the morning.
Half an hour is not too much. Then renew it every time you can remember
by brief prayers to God through the day. And don't forget: God sometimes
sends His own direct word to us for our encouragement and guidance.
(12) "Having had a spiritual experience as the result of these
steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice
these principles in all our affairs."
So often you hear AAs speak about being out on "twelfth-step work." That
means getting what they have found across to others. They take no money
for it, but they will go any hour of the day or night to people who
honestly want to learn "the program." The reason these men and women
keep going is partly that their friends in AA are willing and ready to
give them time, encouragement, challenge. Every member of AA is a
carrier of AA.
In none of these twelve steps do the rest of us need to learn from them
more than in this one. A Christian who is not enthusiastic about Christ,
who does not love to speak about Him and relate His power to the needs
of others, is hardly a Christian at all.
In AA everybody is a one-man awakening, wherever he can touch another
alcoholic. Let us promise God that we will let Him use us in this way.
And let us follow these twelve steps faithfully, that through them we
may become effective people for Christ in His world.
Other Articles by Sam Shoemaker:
• "I Stand By the Door"
• "What the Church has to Learn from Alcoholics Anonymous"
• "A 'Christian Program'"
Note: Each one of these articles is posted in one or more places on the
internet, but we receive frequent requests from all over the world
asking where the communicant can find or see or copy them. Some are in
my two titles New Light on Alcoholism: God, Sam Shoemaker, and A.A., 2d
ed. (http://www.dickb.com/newlight.shtml). Some are in the Courage to
Change article by Bill P. and me and now published by Hazelden. And my
analysis of the Shoemaker language contribution to the Big Book and to
each of the Twelve Steps can be found in my title Twelve Steps for You
(http://www.dickb.com/12stepsforYou.shtml). My own titles are available
through our new bookstore: